Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for March, 2010

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW – AND KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE

Written in March, 2010, for the site Creatures ‘n’ Crooks (aka Buried under Books):

I have a lot of pet peeves: young women in spiked heels and miniskirts who park in handicap spots; spiked heels; miniskirts; young women who can wear spiked heels and miniskirts; clothes that need to be ironed; toilet paper that rolls under instead of over; spending a lot of money to see a critically acclaimed movie only to realize partway through that I wouldn’t watch it for free on TV; finding out that the shipping and handling charges cost more than the item I want to buy; clothing in petite lengths that still need to be hemmed; mosquito bites; exercise; trying to figure out Amazon’s rankings; discovering that Trader Joe’s has stopped carrying one of my favorites. You know, the usual.

High on my list of things that irk me is poor grammar. “He don’t,” “between you and I,” and “different than” set my teeth on edge. (I also dislike clichés, but in this case, my teeth really do clench.) In writing, the confusion between “it’s” and “its,” and “their,” “there,” and “they’re” (hard to distinguish when spoken) drive me up a wall. (Okay, that’s a cliché that I can’t justify using, but it is descriptive.)

Then there are the inaccuracies that have been known to make me stop reading a book. If I’m near the end of a mystery and still haven’t figured out whodunit or why, I keep reading, although I’ll flip back to the offending passage every few minutes and reread it, in case it has changed in the meantime. On my website, I listed a few of the more egregious errors that I’ve read in books by well-known bestselling authors:

* In one book, the author describes the character’s navel ring by using the exact words (something like “her belly button winked”) several times. The first time was cute, the second was an error. By the third and fourth times, it was just annoying.

* A first person narrator approaches a victim who has been shot in the chest and is lying on his back. The narrator then describes what is on the back of the victim’s jacket.

* A woman is hit on the back of the head and falls backwards.

* A Jewish writer describes the holiday of Sukkot as occurring a month after Pesach and lasting two days. (Sukkot is in the fall, after the High Holy Days, and lasts eight days; Shavuot is seven weeks after Pesach and lasts two days.)

I am not infallible. There were several errors in my first book, a cozy mystery called Chanukah Guilt, which escaped the careful readings of a manuscript editor, a copy editor, and the author. Some were caught before publication, but one is still in the book. In fact, I didn’t even notice it until I had read the passage out loud at a book signing – three or four times.

But I do try to be accurate. One of the first rules of writing, according to the ubiquitous they, is “write what you know.” And I did. My protagonist is a rabbi in Southern New Jersey. She is short, beyond zaftig, has unruly red hair, was born and raised in Boston, and is in her fifties (all of which describes me, except I’m now quite a bit older than I was when I first created Rabbi Aviva Cohen; I’ve also learned how to tame my hair somewhat, as will she eventually). Want to know what Aviva looks like? Just look at me. People who know me say they can hear my voice when they read the book.

But there are differences, too. Aviva is a pulpit rabbi; I have mostly worked in Jewish education or non-profit organizations, serving in a part-time pulpit for a few years only when I returned to school for a doctorate in education. She has been married and divorced twice; I have been married to the same man, my first, last, and only husband, for almost thirty-four years. She has no children; I have two sons. Her father died several years earlier and her mother, in her nineties, lives in an assisted living facility in Boston; my parents are in their early eighties, considered the “young elderly” these days, and live independently in a single-family house in Florida. She has an older sister; I’m an only child.

I try to avoid the kind of errors that bother me when I read them in other books. Chanukah Guilt takes place when Chanukah began right after Thanksgiving. The last time this confluence of dates occurred was in 2002.  I needed a snow storm. It is not unheard of (or even usual) for there to be an early winter snow storm in the Philadelphia area. So I checked http://www.wunderground.com/history/ and, yes, it did snow on the date I needed. And if it hadn’t snowed then? I would have written the scene anyway, but someone might have noticed the error and . . .  horrors! . . . stopped reading. And never read a book of mine again.

I also keep the International Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com) on my favorites list, so I can make sure Aviva isn’t going to a movie that hadn’t yet premiered or watching a TV show that had already been canceled. (I really keep it on my favorites list because I’m a movie geek, but saying it’s for research is more intellectually pretentious.) For the second book, Unleavened Dead, Aviva has little time to do anything but go to a conference, prepare for Passover, try to clear her niece’s partner from suspicion that she had murdered her new boss (who had fired her) in a hit-and-run accident, and wonder if a carbon monoxide leak that had killed a couple in her congregation had really been an accident. But just in case she has insomnia and decides to watch late night TV, I can check to see what was being aired in late March-early April, 2004. Or I can forgo the research and have her watch a DVD instead.

The moral: if you can’t be accurate, be plausible.

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